[06/July/2003] Conservation of the Old Walled City of Sana'a Republic of Yemen
T. Luke Young
"Viewed for the first time the old walled city of Sana'a creates an unforgettable impression, a vision of a childhood dream world of fantasy castles."1
Sana'a has been continuously inhabited for over 2,500 years. Its religious and cultural heritage is reflected in its 106 mosques, 12 hammams (bath houses) and 6,500 houses built before the 11th century.
The city's architecture has been damaged, demolished and rebuilt through flooding, wars and prosperity. Yet, it wasn't until the modernization in the 1970s that the city's architectural fabric was truly in danger of disappearing.
In the early 1980s, at the request of the Yemeni government, UNESCO launched an international campaign to conserve the city, which has been lauded world wide as a success. After considerable preservation and rehabilitation efforts, the city was designated as an UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1988 and given an Aga Khan Award for Architecture in 1995.
While conservation efforts have been successful, little has been written to analyze the impact of the resulting tourism and development.
Sana'a is one of the most ancient surviving cities in Arabia and arguably the longest continually inhabited city in the world. By the first century BC Sana'a emerged as a center of the inland trade route. After the withdrawal of the Turks in 1630, Sana'a became the seat of an independent Imam. This ushered in a period of prosperity for the city, which lasted for nearly two centuries and can still be seen in the quality and quantity of buildings from that time. Most of the domestic architecture still standing in the city dates from this period and later, while the extant mosques reach back well over one thousand years and fragments of towers are as old as four centuries before the rise of Islam.
-- THE PROJECT
Sana'a's architectural vocabulary was already well formed by the tenth century when Ibn Rustah wrote that most of the houses "are adorned with gypsum, baked bricks, and symmetrical stones."
The architectural heritage of Sana'a consists of multi-story buildings decorated with geometric shapes and horizontal bands rendered in gypsum, narrow streets, urban gardens, elegant minarets and imposing monuments .
The streets of the city are flanked by towering houses five to nine stories high. The houses are constructed of ashlar stonework from six to ten meters above street level where exposed brickwork then takes over.
In Sana'a the space between buildings is just wide enough for pedestrians and mule-drawn carts.
Timber is in short supply since trees are relatively rare and small and so the traditional architecture of Sana'a relies on stone and clay bricks decorated with gypsum plaster. Symmetrical balance is clearly a desirable characteristic in the houses of Sana'a and facades have strong ingredients of conventional formality.
- Impacts of Modernization
Sana'a has been an important center in southwestern Arabia for nearly 2000 years. Until the end of the Yemeni civil war in 1969 the city was closed to outsiders for two centuries, its unique multi-story buildings protected behind mud walls.
A traditional way of life was preserved in a society that values looking after poor people and old animals.
The city, though in need of maintenance, was clean and sanitary.